There has to be a certain point in every famous actor’s career when the burden of celebrity becomes unbearable. The paparazzi are suffocating and the mob is oppressive, and the need to escape becomes an imperative. Some run to Buddhist monasteries, some start binge drinking, and some enjoy meditation. Daniel Day-Lewis, the Irish-British three time Oscar winning actor, instead choses to work with his hands.

Years ago, back in 2001, Day-Lewis donned a leather apron and sat at desks beside Stefano Bemer, a gifted Florentine cobbler. There, for nine months, day after day, eight hours a day, he was a cobbler’s apprentice.

He became a bit of a legend in Florence and the people of San Frediano, the neighbourhood where Day-Lewis held his apprenticeship, still remember those days.

Bemer made men’s shoes. His shop was small, but his clients were apparently big, in name at least (Bemer would never reveal his clients names, even under torture). Daniel Day-Lewis was introduced to him by John Lobb, his usual supplier, whose shop in St. James Street supplies shoes to the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales.

Upon arriving at Bemer’s shop, Day-Lewis only wanted a pair of shoes, but when he entered the shop he was so captivated by the atmosphere of serenity and dedication, the silence broken by the hammering, the smell of leather and wax, that he had to stay.

So he did. The two started talking, they became friends and when Day-Lewis opted for a sabbatical in his career, he moved to Florence with his wife (Rebecca Miller, daughter of playwright Arthur) and their son Ronan Cal (then 3 years of age) and asked Bemer if he could work for him for free.

Bemer sadly passed away a year ago. He was still very young at 48 and I remember meeting him during a tour of craftsmen in Florence. His shop was among the framers, gilders, carpenters, in one of the few areas of the city untouched by tourists’ swarms, far from the selfie-sticks wielding crowds. He told me Day-Lewis was the perfect student: timely, accurate, meticulous. He was never late, did not raise his eyes from his work and shunned publicity. He wanted to be, and was, just an ordinary apprentice.
For now, the Bemer brand is alive and well, having been acquired by Tommaso Meloni and the Gori family, owners of the Scuola del Cuoio (The School of Leather), and the tradition of Italian hand-made shoes will continue, and the door is always open to any actors wanting to try something a little different.

Some people thought that Day-Lewis must have been tired of his job. In truth, he simply had understood that manual work is akin to meditation: it’s a way of focusing the mind, of soul-searching, of recharging. It is, in a sense, quite spiritual as well as therapeutic. And if nothing else, you end up with something beautiful to show for it. To this day, Day-Lewis’ own shoes are still waiting to be collected.

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